While you've been doing laundry, your seven-year-old has been making art – crayoning up a storm at the kitchen table. You take a break from folding to check on her. She's in the middle of drawing something. It's an animal, but not one you've seen before. You'd say mammal if you had to guess – maybe a cross between a beagle and a lion. Your daughter notices you looking at her piece, and fixes you with a question: "Do you like it?"
You love it. You love her, and by extension, you love what she makes. You tell her that: "I love it. It's beautiful. Good work." She smiles, and starts in again on her drawing. You go back to the laundry. Job well done, right? Your compliment certainly seemed to make your daughter happy. The problem is, you can't help feeling there was more you could have said. You're just not sure exactly what it was.
Talking with a child about the art she makes is a powerful way to communicate that you care for her and are interested in her. But because we tend to learn that art is frivolous, most of us are left without a language for it. The good news is it's actually easy to talk with kids about their art. All you need is a simple vocabulary, and a little practice.
Here are some tips to help get you started:
Break it down
A piece of art can have a lot going on in it. Try talking about individual aspects of the piece. Let it be simple. Here are some elements to notice:
Colour: What colours are in the picture? Point them out. "Look at that red." "Wow! That blue is bright!"
Shape: Are there parts that are round? Square? Triangular? "This dog's head is so round. And then its body is so square. And these pointy ears – triangles. One animal, lots of shapes."
Contrast: Are there colours or shapes that are very different from each other? Are they close together or far apart? "This green is so deep, and the yellow beside it is so pale. The way you put them together really makes each of them pop."
Composition: Is there more action in one part of the piece then in other parts? Is it top or bottom heavy? "There are all these squiggles and blobs all crunched up together in the bottom, and then almost nothing on top. It's so open up there. What a strong choice, to leave all that space."
Ask about the process
Every piece of art is arrived at through a series of choices – a journey. Find out about the journey. Some questions to try:
"What was it like to make it?"
"What did you draw first? And what came after that?"
"Were parts of it hard to make? Which parts?"
Remember that the journey continues even after the drawing is done. Ask about how your child wants her finished piece to exist in the world:
"Where would you hang it up if you could hang it up anywhere?"
"Who would you show it to if you could show it to anyone?"
Use body language
How you touch a child's art tells about how you value her effort and imagination. Handle the art as if it's precious. It is.
Steer clear of the "meaning" trap
It's natural to want to try to draw connections between your child's art and your child's life. Still, you might want to avoid asking her why she drew what she did. Yes, an artist's work may correspond in a direct way to people, places and events around her. But the artistic process is intuitive and complex.
The implication when we ask "why?" is that we expect a "because." Your child may not know what caused her to draw what she did. Or she may have drawn what she did for many reasons. If you're curious about an element in your child's drawing, try expressing your curiosity: "I'm curious about this house." Or even just name the element – "a house" – and see where that leads.
Go beyond "thumbs up"
What if your child asks you if you like her artwork? If you do like it, by all means say so. But don't stop there. Go on to notice details. What if the work doesn't appeal to you? Focusing on what you notice relieves you of the pressure of having to like the piece. In time, you may come to find yourself limited by "like." Once you're in the habit of noticing art, you may feel too much about a piece to say whether you "like" it or not.
In any event, you can always return the question. If your child asks "Do you like it?", ask her: "Do you?"
Sarah Teitel is an artist and art therapist. She facilitates therapeutic art-making groups at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Baycrest Health Sciences. She has a private practice in Toronto. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her website starttherapy.ca